Volunteer Action has been described as the glue that holds civil society together. During National Volunteer Week, April 19 to 25, we celebrate the countless hours and service volunteers have donated to their communities of their own free will.
It is “active citizenship”; people are accepting responsibility for, and participating in, civic affairs; and people are helping people, both formally and informally. It demonstrates the pride we take in our lives and our communities.
In order for this volunteer action to flourish, we need to support it by dispelling myths that surround it.
Volunteers do not appear by magic. They must be recruited, trained and supervised. They do not necessarily volunteer any time, anywhere or do anything. As individuals, they have skills, interests and considerations that require a mechanism to match them with the right position and support their efforts.
Organizations in the not-for-profit sector are trying desperately to provide this support, but with the reductions in funding and the ever-increasing demand for services, dollars needed for this support have decreased or have been eliminated.
A common belief which permeates our society is that volunteerism is free. Just as there is a cost associated with hiring and training new staff in the public and private sector, equally so, there is a significant cost to recruitment and volunteer development. To nurture volunteerism as a tradition in our communities, effective management of this important resource must be supported.
During Volunteer Week, we ask that you reflect on ways a volunteer has helped you personally, or how volunteers have helped to support your community.
Who are Canada’s Volunteers?
Every year, some six million volunteers contribute one billion hours of their time to provide society with $13 billion of unpaid service. According to an Easter Seals study, this selfless devotion accounts for 8% of Canada’s Gross Domestic Product.
- Volunteers come from all walks of life and represent a wide cross section of the Canadian population
- Volunteer participation increases with age until about mid-life
- One quarter of Canadaï¿½s volunteers are in the 35-44 year age group
- One in five 15-19 year oldï¿½s and elderly people volunteer
- Women are more likely than men to volunteer
- The likelihood of volunteering increases with level of education B 46% of those with university degrees are volunteers
- The rate of volunteering increases with the level of household income B full-time workers account for more than 75% of Canadian volunteers
- More than one-quarter of all working age Canadians volunteer
- Volunteers contribute an average of 3.7 hours per week, or 191 hours per year, for a combined yearly total of more than one billion volunteer hours
- Almost half of all volunteers work for more than one organization, filling close to 10 million volunteer positions
Source: David P. Ross and E. Richard Shillington. A Profile of the Canadian Volunteer: National Voluntary Organizations. Nov. 1989.
The time has come for us to celebrate volunteers for their contribution B not only to communities, but to the Canadian economy as a whole.
To cope with government cut backs and corporate downsizing, we are seeing more people becoming aware of the need for volunteers.
Today, volunteerism is not just a way for businesses and individuals to express concern for their community, it is a way for them to accept responsibility for their own well-being.
First Principles of Voluntary Action
- Voluntary Action is willing and non-salaried – the action of volunteering needs to be clearly distinguished from other actions (often not of full choice) required as part of government or other programs (e.g., community service orders, workfare). It is reasonable that volunteers receive reimbursement for expenses related to their volunteer activity.
- Voluntary Action includes advocacy as an essential part of democracy – advocating at all levels within society is a legitimate mechanism by which voluntary organizations represent and promote the interests of those they serve, for example representing the rights of patients in institutions or accessibility of washrooms.
- Voluntary Action as a hallmark of Civic Society – voluntary action is rooted in citizenship and social responsibility.
- Voluntary Action values diversity – we need to recognize and value the full spectrum of political, age, talent, aspiration, ethnic, cultural, religious, and socio-economic differences of society that are represented within the voluntary sector.
- Voluntary Action complements and does not displace essential services – government should continue to be accountable and responsible for the provision of essential services to meet the basic needs of the citizens of the province, although the voluntary sector may participate in the provision of services.
- Voluntary Action is an expression of responsibility to one another – voluntarism provides an opportunity for individuals to contribute to their community through a demonstration of civic and shared responsibility.
- Voluntary Action advances quality of life – voluntary action enriches and empowers the lives of the people it affects.
- Voluntary Action should complement, not replace jobs – voluntary action should not actively seek to replace employment or jobs, and should be taken by individuals of their own choice to augment but not compete with paid activity.
- Voluntary Action is rewarding and satisfying – volunteers need to feel that what they are doing is making a difference and contributing to their personal development.
- Voluntary Action is enhanced when a volunteerï¿½s own essential needs are met – people will more readily volunteer if they do not have to worry about their own needs being met.
Source: The Report of the Advisory Board on the Voluntary Sector. Sustaining a Civic Society – Voluntary Action in Ontario. Volume II, Background papers, Oct. 1996.
Issues and Challenges
Voluntary organizations have experienced a sharp increase in the demand for services based on five demographic and economic trends:
- Our population is aging. In 1995, 3.5 million Canadians were over 65 years of age, 12.2% of the population. The need for support is also increasing in the areas of health care and home care.
- The composition of our immigrant population is also changing and there is an increased need for language training and resettlement programs to assist with their integration.
- We are experiencing a breakdown in families — a 40% divorce rate and over a million single parent families which leads to increased behavioural and emotional difficulties that need to be addressed. The most pressing concern is that 58% of single parents are likely to be poor. Many of these families need the assistance of a range of human services to help parents contend with the stresses of raising a family alone and/or in poverty.
- A prolonged recession, “the jobless recovery” fuelled by technological improvements and decreased government support has resulted in increased poverty. This has led to an explosion in the need for food banks, soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Youth unemployment is particularly serious as the jobless rate for 15 to 24 year olds in Canada remains over 17%.
- The rapid increase in disease and other health ailments from HIV to cancer to Alzheimerï¿½s has created a growing number of health problems that require the development of new agencies and programs supported by volunteers to meet the needs.
The second serious challenge to the voluntary sector concerns funding. Apart from religious organizations, the voluntary sector has relied on the support for their core funding from various government sources (64% in 1994), foundations and United Ways. These revenues are being seriously reduced as the federal government cut its expenditures on social programs by $7 billion in 1995 alone. Provincial and municipal governments in turn reduced their grants to voluntary organizations.
The third major challenge is that the charitable sector is the subject of increasing public scrutiny in both Canada and the USA largely due to the number of high profile scandals involving voluntary organizations. This erodes the public’s confidence in support of the sector.
The final difficulty involves the substantial shift in the volunteer base which is so vital to the sector. The traditional source B middle class homemakers B are in decline due to a vastly increased participation rate of women in the workforce and the graying of the generations which were more active in civic organizations. A good many new volunteers are immigrants, young people or the unemployed who want shorter term placements in order to obtain work experience. This has caused us to become more creative with our volunteer opportunities such as family volunteering, corporate volunteering and “virtual volunteering” via the Internet. In addition, it appears that the under 25 generation will be a rich resource for the sector especially if a concerted effort is made to recruit them.
As demographers point out, time is actually on the side of the not-for-profits wanting to tap into the “Baby Boomers”. Boomers are now turning fifty and due to a combination of corporate downsizing and lifestyle choices, it is expected that a large number of them will be retiring early and still have many years ahead of them to do productive work if their basic needs in income are met.
There are opportunities to adapt to these circumstances by developing new partnerships with both public and private sectors within our community and by applying a more flexible and innovative means of recruiting and utilizing volunteers. But it will not be easy, and many organizations will need to be extremely creative, resourceful, motivated and persistent if they are to continue to do good work. We can meet these challenges with the resourcefulness and the determination associated with the Canadian spirit.
Source: Warren Dow, Ph.D. The Voluntary Sector – Trends, Challenges and Opportunities for the New Millennium. Volunteer Vancouver, 1998.
“Volunteers Open Doors to a Better World”
National Volunteer Week 1998
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